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These are the most googled 3D printing questions of 2022, answered

We look at the ten most googled 3D printing questions and then do a fast run through them, providing answers for each. This is a great place to start if you're interested in learning about 3D printing.
david-gewirtz
3d-printers

A view into ZDNet's Fab Lab.

David Gewirtz

Custom manufacturing company Hubs.com recently sent me a press release. They help fabricate custom parts, often using 3D printing technology. They caught my attention because they analyzed Google search data to determine the top 10 3D printing-related questions searchers are asking Google.

Start here: Everything you need to know about 3D printing and its impact on your business

While the press release listed the questions, used them to illustrate the size of the market and commented that 3D printing had experienced substantial growth, it did not attempt to answer the questions. That's where this article comes in. We're going to do a lightning round where we answer all the questions in order of popularity, each in a few paragraphs.

Ready? Set. Go!

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the term applied to a form of fabrication called additive manufacturing. Essentially, objects are built up layer-by-layer, each layer adding material on top of the previous layer. The process is much like printing ink on paper, except the material (usually plastic) adds a third dimension.

This is different from other manufacturing processes, which are often subtractive. Those remove material to create an object. CNCs are subtractive, cutting away wood, plastic, or metal to leave a finished object.

How much is a 3D printer?

The price range of 3D printers is pretty broad. You can buy one for hobbyist use for under $200, or you can buy a giant industrial machine for well over $2 million. In practice, for home, office, and concept prototyping work, you can purchase quite fine 3D printers in the range of $200 to $1,000.

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Three different resin printers capable of producing prints of different sizes. From left to right, these three printers cost $200, $400, and about $1,300.

David Gewirtz

Also: Best cheap 3D printer: Beginner picks under $500

Pricing is often determined by how big the machine is, how robust the machine is (whether it's built out of steel or plastic) and the features that accompany the machine. Some of the slightly more expensive ones include Wi-Fi, a camera, and various printing conveniences like automatic bed leveling.

How does a 3D printer work?

There are quite a few technologies that perform additive manufacturing. The two most popular are fused deposition modeling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA). FDM printers use rolls of plastic filament. That filament is threaded into the machine, a drive mechanism pushes the filament strand into a "hot end", which melts the plastic, and an extruder pushes the molten plastic out onto a plate. A series of gantries moves the extruder around the plate to place the filament, and either the plate or the gantries move up and down as layers are added.

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Filament printer producing a model of the Statue of Liberty.

David Gewirtz

SLA printers work differently. These use a vat of resin with a transparent bottom. Under the vat is a light source. Usually, an LCD display like you'd find on your smartphone or tablet. Certain pixels light up, exposing the resin and causing the exposed resin to harden. As each exposure takes place, a gantry lifts the exposed resin off the vat's transparent bottom, and the next layer is exposed.

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Resin printer producing a dragon's tail. Note the vat of liquid below the model.

David Gewirtz

Additional 3D printing technologies involve the use of fused powders, sand, and a wide variety of other approaches, but those are mostly limited to heavier industrial use.

What can I make with a 3D printer?

This is such a huge, open-ended answer. Anything from houses for a model railroad to real houses for real families, and just about anything in-between. Basically, if you can design it for 3D printing and your gear can handle your design, then you can make it.

train

Here's the body of an HO scale model train car being printed on an FDM printer.

David Gewirtz

But let's talk more practically about things you might make with a sub-$1,000 printer. Resin printers produce amazing detail and are heavily used by tabletop gamers for creating miniatures and model railroaders for creating tiny model trains and accessories. They're also used to prototype products and create physical mockups.

bear

Tiny bear not much bigger than a penny, printed on a $300 resin printer. 

David Gewirtz

FDM printers don't produce the tiny detail as well, but they make a lot of useful objects. I use them to make brackets, stands, and supports for filming videos. My wife makes doll stands. Automobile companies use them to create jigs and fixtures right on the factory floor. Naval vessels use them to make spare parts. Schools make scale models of dinosaur skeletons to teach about ancient history.

Look, there's no way I can cover all this in a few paragraphs. But if you want a good idea, take a look at two 3D model repositories, Thingiverse and Printables. You'll see so many things you can print.

What is PLA?

PLA (or polylactic acid) is a material for making plastic filament. It's probably the most common material for 3D printing because it's very easy to use. It adheres well to the build plate, it doesn't have challenging problems due to temperature changes, it produces fairly clean objects that don't require a lot of post processing, and it's moderately environmentally friendly.

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A spool of white PLA filament.

David Gewirtz

That said, it doesn't do well out in the sun (ask me how I know that), it can be a bit brittle (ask me how I know that), and while it's fairly strong, it's not nearly as strong as nylons or even ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), another common plastic. Legos are made from ABS, for example.

Overall, PLA is a good, general-purpose printing filament, available for a relatively low price and in a wide variety of colors and variations. I use PLA whenever possible. It's my go-to material.

Who invented 3D printing?

So, I knew that 3D printing was a technology concept for decades. But I had to look up a more detailed answer. Chuck Hull is credited as the inventor of stereolithography back in 1984. He filed a patent in 1986. But there is some disagreement. A Japanese inventor, Hideo Kodama, filed a patent in 1981 but was unable to finance it through to completion.

really excellent article on the history of 3D printing is available on the website All3DP. Justin Haines, the article's author, goes all the way back to a science fiction story from 1945 by Murray Leinster that described something that was a pretty good prediction of what 3D printing would become. If you want to know more about the history of 3D printing, I recommend giving Haines' article a read.

What materials are used in 3D printing?

By far, the most common material for 3D printing is plastic. When used in filament or FDM printing, it melts easily, extrudes smoothly, and hardens when it cools. That makes it particularly easy to build up objects. Some filament vendors infuse their filaments with particles of other material. Wood filament is wood-infused plastic, and it sands well. The copper filament is infused with copper bits, tarnishing and buffing up like real copper. Carbon fiber filament is, you guessed it, plastic filament infused with carbon fibers for added strength.

Sample bowl finished with Danish oil

Sample wood filament bowl I finished with Danish oil. 

David Gewirtz

Objects printed with resin printing start life as a liquid, moderately noxious resin. Light (particularly certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light), not heating and cooling, causes the resin to harden.

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My stash of resins lives in a storage cubby under the CNC. 

David Gewirtz

Other materials are also used in 3D printing. 3D printed houses are being made with concrete that hardens in the air after being pushed out of a moving gantry system. Metal objects have been made by 3D printers that take metallic dust (think sawdust but from metal) that's either heated to form a bond or mixed with a glue-like agent to hold it all together. There are even 3D printers that extrude chocolate and other food items to make 3D-printed food.

Expect a lot of innovation when it comes to 3D printing materials. This is a big growth area, especially as metal 3D printing becomes more practical, affordable, and common.

How to design for 3D printing?

Most 3D printed designs are created in a CAD (computer-aided design) program like Fusion 360, Tinkercad, or Blender. Essentially, you draw out shapes on the screen, combine those shapes together, and create objects from those shapes. When I first got started with 3D printing, I wrote an article called "If you can do PowerPoint, you can do 3D design" because a lot of basic 3D printing design is simply drawing and placing rectangles.

3d-design-plastic-rack-hole-hanger-tinkercad-2022-08-03-02-51-00

Designing a holder that attaches to plastic shelves in Tinkercad. 

David Gewirtz

Personally, I use Tinkercad for my quick, simple designs. It's very fast and easy to learn and use, and if I'm creating an object that's relatively simple and I want to make it quickly, Tinkercad (which is free) is a great way to go. 

When I'm designing something more complex, I gravitate to Fusion 360. Not only is it more powerful, but it uses something called "parametric design." This is a feature that allows you to assign variables to dimensions, and by changing the number assigned to the variable, the entire design resizes. So powerful.

fusion

Cross-sectional view of a dust collection adapter I designed for the workshop. 

David Gewirtz

What is 3D printing used for?

I've pretty much answered this already, but as a Google search term, it shows up as distinct from "What can I make with a 3D printer?" Rather than listing a bunch more things you can build, I'll share with you my "how to think about 3D printing" advice that I often give to newbies.

Most people I encounter who learn I do a lot of 3D printing think it's some sort of magic. They think I can walk up to my 3D printer, say the equivalent of "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." and it'll produce whatever I want, like a replicator on Star Trek. 3D printing is far from magic.

Every object has to be built up from a series of shapes. You can't just shake up an artist's paint set and get Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring or Picasso's Guernica. Like painting, 3D printing requires some level of design and effort. Also, like painting, you have to keep the medium in mind. With molten plastic, you can't create large open areas, or the plastic will simply droop. Instead, you have to design in "supports" or other ways to manage the material properties of the plastic.

3D printing is used for rapid prototyping, product design, small volume manufacturing, hobby projects, making things to help around the house, studio brackets, and so much more. It excels at creating low-cost custom solutions. But to get a 3D printed object, you either have to buy or download one that's already been created, or you have to design it in a CAD program yourself.

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The yellow arms are used to hold cameras for time-lapse photos of 3D prints. They were designed in Fusion 360 and printed in PLA. 

David Gewirtz

What are you going to make?

I've been making incredibly useful custom objects for the past six or seven years, and as I look around my house/studio/workshop/lab, I can see so many custom helper items I designed and printed with 3D printing. What are you going to make? Let us know in the comments below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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